Friday, December 18, 2015

The Death of the Pits

A day to both mourn and celebrate.

I grew up in a mining town. My grandfather hated going down the pits so much he swore he'd do anything to save his sons from the same fate. In the end my dad's older brother became a miner, and lost his hearing and his lungs to the job.
My dad went up the way instead, and became a slater. At least he had the skies to look at, even if he often got soaked and frozen.

The following poems are from my third collection, Graffiti in Red Lipstick, and are dedicated to my grandfather, and my great-grandfather who was also a miner. I never met my grandfather. He died the year I was born. Both he and my uncle loved their gardens more than anything.

Miners' Daughters

Our hair is honey blond and styled,
our clothes are well-made, warm,
and on our fingers gold rings shine.

But in the memory of our bones
rickets lurks like an ache
and our lungs still recall
the hacking coughs 
of grandfathers we never met.

At night in the dark pit of our dreams
we are down on our knees
tunneling, chipping
at the hard black face of the future

and even as we sit, well-groomed,
sipping cocktails in this posh hotel
there is a trace of coal dust
beneath our polished fingernails.

black heat - a sequence

pit wheel

slowly turning

black-spoked giant

from the mineshaft of memory
you draw a smiling child

waiting at the pit-head gate


he did not have a garden
just a plot, to grow a functional crop
carrots, leeks, potatoes

but always he kept a corner
where he cultivated flowers
to feed his soul
after a twelve hour shift
of eating into darkness

lousing time

bursting from the cage
black creatures
until they smiled
white teeth human

the miners’ perk

coal castles dumped
for dirty wee rascals
to be kings on


burning in the grate
wind howling in the lum
we saw castles, dungeons
fire-breathing dragons

our parents saw money
going up in smoke
and worried lest winter
last too long
once they peaked like witches’ hats
brooding, dark, they shadowed us
as we skipped to park and school

but today?

shrunken sugar loaf plateaux
sparkling white with last night’s snow

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Scottish Independence - a question of self-respect

When I was asked to write an essay on the question of Scottish independence for the Scott Hames' collection, Un-stated, I was flummoxed. Did I have a particular view? If so, what was it? In the end the writing of the essay became a voyage of discovery. It turned out that I did indeed have a view, and a strong one at that. So here's the essay.

 We all know one.

The woman who stays in a marriage with a husband she doesn't love or respect. In fact, she doesn't even like him. And we all wonder why she doesn't leave. Not least because she moans about him constantly; how he over-rules her, even as he insists that her opinion counts. How he belittles her, but oh-so-affectionately; can't she take a bit of gentle ribbing? How he says they're in a marriage of equals, but as he's the bigger earner it's only natural that he gets a bigger say in how they live, what they spend their money on. (And anyway, why would she want to worry herself with those things when he can take care of them for her?)

We look at this woman. She has all the trappings of someone who's doing well; stylish haircut, fashionable clothes, gold jewellery. She has her own car, a couple of credit cards, two foreign holidays a year. But the outer trappings count for nothing. Underneath she is stunted. Like a plant growing in the wrong conditions.

You go out for drinks with her sometimes. After the third drink she reminisces about what she was like before; bright, intelligent, independent-minded. She had potential. She had dreams. After the fourth drink she becmes animated about what she could have - should have - been.

Everything this woman says and does reveals one thing. One thing that over-rides all her superficial affluence: her spouse's control over how she lives affects her sense of self worth, threatens to subsume her very identity. (Of course, from time to time, he allows her little victories. He likes having a 'kept' wife. It feeds his sense of being a Big Man.)

As time goes on she mythologises her past more and more, and develops a self-indulgent bitterness as she gripes about how everything that goes wrong is HIS fault. You look at her with some sadness. You see what she cannot. No matter how materially comfortable her life is, as long as she stays in this union of unequals, she will never realise her own unique potential.

So why doesn't she leave?


Fear of what? Of failure? Of taking full responsibility for herself? Of being the architect of her own future? Of not having someone else to blame when things go wrong?

To be fair, this fear has not grown and developed totally by chance. It's the result of years and years of being told (mostly by him, and he can be very persuasive) that she's not strong enough to cope on her own. In Harlot Red, a short story I wrote at the time of devolution, the woman tells her partner she's being stifled by their relationship, she needs to leave. As she stands in the doorway with her packed suitcases, he says: "You can't be serious. You'll be back in a fortnight. You'll not be happy on your own. Who's going to look after the bills? Who's going to fix the heating if it breaks down? Who's going to get up in the middle of the night if you hear a strange noise? You're fooling yourself. You need me." Does he really believe she needs him? Or is he psychologically manipulating her so that she is too scared to go it alone?

How many women have had these words said to them over the years?

 In the feminist classic short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper', written by Charlotte Gilman Perkins more than a century ago, the husband – a physician in this case, presented not as a mysogynistic monster, but as a caring and moral man – diagnoses his wife with mental illness when she wants to grow and develop by writing and painting. He needs her to stay as she is, dependent and weakened, so that his control of her, necessary to his sense of being dominant, is not threatened.

 So what has all this to do with Scotland? It might seem strange to anthropormophise a country so often symbolised by whisky-swilling, pugnacious, football-playing, hairy, head-butting hardmen as a woman – and a weak woman at that. But is that what the once fierce and feisty Scotland is turning into? A scared, wee, moanin-faced woman trapped in an unequal marriage. (What's more, a polygamous marriage. Scotland is just one of England's wee wives.) No wonder the bell-ringer at St Giles Cathedral reputedly played 'Why should I be so sad on my wedding day', and civil unrest broke out in many parts of Scotland when the Act of Union was signed.

 Right from that first wedding night Scotland was never going to be an equal partner. It could even be claimed it was a forced marriage; by all accounts it was not the choice of the people. It was certainly a marriage of financial convenience - if not necessity - and yes, Scotland may well have benefitted in some ways over the past three centuries. But perhaps it's time for Scotland to get off her knees, stop snivelling, and prove that she's got the balls to determine her own future – like the lineage of feisty Scotswomen I hail from, who would have lived on bread and water before they'd compromise their beliefs or kow-tow to anyone.

 For amazingly, even three centuries of grudging subordination and barely disguised colonisation have not eradicated Scotland's sense that she DOES have her own distinct identity.

 As a child I was never in any doubt that I was Scottish. Oh, I was told that I was British too, but that never spoke to my heart. But my Scottishness? That flowed through my veins as strongly as the bagpipe music my father occasionally played on winter nights.

 In our wonderful, wee council house, I was taught to be proud of Scottish education. I attended one of the first comprehensive schools in the country. I learned that to be Scottish meant to be part of a co-operative, caring community; to have a socialist mindset where hard work with either your hands or your brain was honorable and should be rewarded with decent wages; that everyone should have free healthcare and decent living conditions; that tolerance and acceptance of difference was a good thing. I loved the lyrics of the Burns' song, A Man's A Man For A' That, and (despite being a girl) thought it was speaking directly to me and epitomised the best of what being Scottish meant.

 But that is my sense of Scottishness. What is happening to our collective sense of Scottishness now, in the twenty-first century? Like that woman we both know, does today's Scotland spend too much time harking back to an unfulfilled past, rather than planning for a fulfilled future? A Scotland that loves nothing more than greetin into its whisky glass about how it hates the bastard English? Is that the Scotland we have today? A nation happy to package up and sell its sense of self in couthy tartan shortbread tins and tartan tammies and faux-fur sporrans? To peddle a plastic-heather-kitsch-and-keech culture while its young people develop an alarming sense of victimhood, and despite (apparently) better education than ever before, confuse nationalism - with all its negative connotations of nasty and nazi - with national pride? If we want to be treated as a nation inside or oustide the union our sense of who we collectively are has to be more than a snazzy collection of designer kilts; an absentee, mysogynistic film star; and a horde of Saltire-draped, ginger-wigged football fans famous for being good-natured losers.

 Scotland will continue to have a crisis of identity until she stands on her own two feet and faces down the demons – many of them imaginary as demons so often are – stationed between her and her future. A future which could offer so much; not least self-respect; the opportunity to close the ever-widening gap between rich and poor; and a true democracy unfettered by inherited privilege and historically-evolved undemocratic structures.

 But will twenty first century Scotland have the guts? Remember that unfulfilled woman we all know?

One day you get fed up with her constant moaning about her husband, so you challenge her.
'Why don't you leave him?' you ask. 'Strike out on your own. Be who you want to be.'
 She stares into the bottom of her whisky glass as if she might find the answer there.
'It's complicated,' she sighs. 'We've been together a long time. I wouldn't know where to start.'
 'It's not that complicated,' you answer. 'Scientists decoded the human genome. Now that was complicated.'
 'I might end up with less than I've got now,' she mutters.
 'There are different ways of having less,' you say.
 She doesn't answer. Just goes up to the bar and orders more drinks. 'Make mine a double,' she says to the barman.

 Then there was the woman in the story, Harlot Red. She left despite her partner's infantilisation of her and his fear-mongering. She's her own woman now, and a dab-hand at fixing the heating. Her husband, meanwhile, has been set free to forge a new and different sense of self too.

 And the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper? Unable to grow and develop her creativity in a positive way, she descends into madness, her unused energies turning inwards. Soon she loses all sense of who she is and spends her days crawling round the attic room, a pitiful, twisted version of the woman she could have been.

 Of course, Harlot Red is a contemporary story. The Yellow Wallpaper was written over a century ago. Women – and nations, even small ones – have much more ability to be independent these days. If that's what they really want.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

In 2007 Ian was awarded the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. Part of the award was the chance to stay for a while and write in the beautiful Hotel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing in the Forest of Fontainebleau in France. Now an artists' retreat it was formerly a hotel. Stevenson himself spent time there, as did many famous artists and the playwright, Strindberg.

I was lucky enough to be able to join Ian for part of his time there. I wrote the following poem in the Visitors' Book when we were leaving.


At the Hotel Chevillon, Manuella, cloth in hand,
cleans the rooms, disturbs the artists’ dreams
rolling lost beneath the beds, swathed by time in softest dust.

On the burnished wooden stairs, fallen thoughts,
delicate as spider webs, float before her sweeping broom
and as she polishes and sprays, the ghosts of those
who once lived here flit restlessly from room to room.

While Manuella does what must be done;
mops up the drops of inspiration, the dregs of desperation
fallen from the artists' pens

wipes from the windowpanes
the breath of those who long to leave

a brushstroke on the sky,
a poem on the petal of a flower,
a pure note echoing in the breeze,
something which says, yes
I was here
I left
I did not leave

Hotel Chevillon, September, 2007
february on flanders moss

in morning sunshine
feathers black as mourning silk
death perches on a leafless tree

behind my back
my shadow stretches
a silent ghost

wraithed in mists, dark firs wait
like forgotten Roman armies
doomed to haunt the edge of time

a scots pine, stunted, stands
its branches gnarled as an ancient’s hands
begging kindness from the rushing clouds

in a flat green field, ditched around with brown, a scarecrow leans,
the next along lies face-down in a muddy shroud
forgotten fallen soldier in a sodden Scottish Somme

a shot rings out, a cloud of herons lift
into a sky of gun-metal grey
forty wings in a flap

late evening sun slants
the moss beneath my feet
emits a human gurgling sound

Friday, February 27, 2009

They shoot poets, don't they? Part two.

As I explained in a previous blog entry, The Herald - who over the years have liked to portray themselves as champions of poetry with their tiny daily poem squeezed in beside the obituaries - were happy to indulge in lax journalism on the appointment of a Makar for Stirling.

Not content with one article spreading malicious misinformation, The Herald has followed up with another piece by Cate Devine stating that the appointment of a Makar is controversial locally as the poet is being paid to promote poetry throughout the area.

Makes you wonder how much work a Herald journalist would do for £500 per year. Who knows, they might even go to the bother of checking their facts.

But more mysterious to me - why all the negative spin from The Herald on the appointment of a Makar? Are they running an anti-poetry agenda?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

DiScOmBObUlAtE - Tuesday 10th February 2009 at the CCA

Yay! We're back for 2009. Special guest for Feb is Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap.

Hosted by the ineffable Ian Macpherson, the line-up includes regular favourites Anneliese Mackintosh, Iain Heggie, Alan Bissett and Kirstin Innis. Also reading, Rodge Glass. I might squeeze in a wee Valentine poem myself.

Oh, and Anna and Julian are back with another song following their December success.

So come along to the Theatre at the CCA, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 7.30 for an 8pm start. Laugh at the writers who've crawled out from behind their desks to meet at DiscOmBoB, where literature and comedy collide.

ps we're building a DisComBob website - more info soon.

Well, I'm delighted to say that on Burns' Day I was appointed as the official poet - or Makar - for Stirling. This is essentially an honorary position - something the local Unison spokesman should have taken on board before making his 'slap in the face' comment in yesterday's Herald. It carries an honorarium of £500 per year, and not as the Herald claimed, £1500. It also, I understand, comes from a budget made up from legacies, therefore the money involved can not and could not be used for general council spending. So petty politicking and lax journalism from The Herald notwithstanding, I'm delighted. Particularly as I was nominated by local people and subsequently appointed by a non-political panel.

As I've said before, poetry is important for people. Why else do so many turn to it in times of distress? But poets don't write in a vacuum, and roles such as Makar matter.

Acknowledgment that what we as poets do in recording the times in which we live - as poets for millennia before us have done - is welcome. I truly regret that the belt is tightening on employees at Stirling Council, but that issue should not be confused with the honorary role of the Makar in raising the profile of poetry in the area. The role will also help promote Stirling as a place of culture and literary heritage.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I am often asked which book my sequence, The Senile Dimension, which won the Scotland on Sunday/Women 2000 Poetry Prize can be found in. It was first published in Meantime, Prize-winning Writing from Scottish Women (Polygon), then appeared in my first collection, Kicking Back. But as Kicking Back is now out of print and copies cost at least £15 on Amazon, I've been promising for a while to put it on this blog.
So here it is at last.
As it charts my experience of my father's illness, I've added some later poems - a kind of 'Part Two'. These poems were first published in Strange Fish, a joint collection with Helen Lamb. Sadly, Strange Fish too is now out of print.

The Senile Dimension

So sorry, dear, to hear
poor dear
your father's
senile dimension.

Breathing Space

You are riotously funny
a one-man farce
you clown around
toppling the routine
of all our lives.

First off there is
the dressing of you
vest over shirt
socks over shoes
Surrealist in Senility.

At tea-time you babble
perched on a flip-top bin
(we really flip our lids at that)
you dollop butter in brown tea
shake sugar on white bread
then down it all – seasoned
with our mirth.

You are riotously funny -
laughter gives us breathing space.
All too soon we know we'll face
the final scene
not of one man farce
but family tragedy.

Salting the wound

The baby brings out the best in you.
She alone makes contact
in your broken mind.

You cosset cajole cuddle
like any doting grampa.
She giggles, gurgles
while for her you haltingly unmuddle
a few syllables of sense.

The baby brings out the best in you,
brings smiles to your lined face,
rubs salt in the raw wound
where life and death are caught
where only the very young
and the very old
are free to laugh and meet


The Machine is broken.
It does not respond
to normal commands.
It operates
but erratically.

I have phoned.
I have phoned.

The Repair Man cannot call today.

The Machine is definitely broken.
Its memory has rewound.
It jams on replay replay replays
scenes from childhood days.

The Machine is losing power.
Even its basic functions cannot be relied upon.

I watch it constantly.

I am afraid of the Machine.
I think it might be dangerous.
The children should be warned.
Someone should unplug it.
But no-one will.

I have called the Repair Man.
The Repair Man cannot call today.


Minnie sings, sweet as the mina bird
in the jungle of the dayroom.
Her yellowed dot eyes dart from chair to chair –
she fears the apes and tigers hiding there.

Andy claps the bumbling clowns
they stage to take away his gloom:
he loves the crazy unmatched clothes,
the gormless smiles, the pear-drop tears,
the cartoon comic frowns.
He claps claps claps them
when they tumble down
in the circus of the dayroom.

The window rambles on
and on and on
with memories of the War
and the General Strike, and the first TV
and remember wee Aunt Annie
and rides in her flash car
to the captive audience
it reflects upon
in the mystery of the dayroom.

Life goes on and on and on
and makes no sense to you or me
in the hot air of the dayroom.

Visiting Time

Not yet widows, not quite wives,
a clockwork army, they arrive
wielding lipstick smiles like
tiny blood-red riot shields.

They breach the locked ward doors and dig
from bulging shopping bags
today's provisions – sandwiches and sausage rolls,
home-made cakes and chocolate bars.

The old men mumble, the old men stumble,
the old men fumble, the old men grumble

while the not yet widows, not quite wives
unwrap with swift efficiency from tightly-wound clingfilm
this week's slice of love, sandwiched in a fresh-baked sponge
delicately iced with guilt, lightly spiced with sympathy.

The food is offered, mauled
by toothless gums, the good wives
bend to wipe the old men's chins, then
feed the fallen crumbs to gape-mouthed bins.

The visit soon is done. The women gather at the locked ward door
display their lipstick smiles, say firm farewells to men they love,
to men they know are on their way nowhere.

And with their emptied bags, their emptied hearts
each not yet widow, not quite wife departs.

No-one cries

In the psycho-geriatric ward
he wears slippers
which are not his.
He wears trousers, socks, a shirt
which belong to no-one -
not anymore.

In the psycho-geriatric ward
his soul is trapped in a cage
even you could not wriggle out of.

He wears a smile
which is not his
not like we knew.

He bears a crown of thorns
inside his head
which should be left on

And no-one's eyes are closed.
No-one's hands are tied with red tape
he claims is not his.
He claims he cannot struggle out of.

No-one hangs his head and cries
this problem is not his
in the psycho-geriatric ward.

The Senile Dimension – Part Two

Go quietly then

You lollop, ape-like, shoulders stooped.
I feed you buns. You chomp.
Slavers foam the shadows of your chin.

I guide your hand towards a lidded cup.
Prehensile thumb and fingers grip. You slurp.

I close my eyes and think of you as you once were,
playing the chanter by the fire,
the rich notes swirling in the air
like sweet wood-smoke.

Reality, in a food-stained cardigan, pokes
me back to here and now.
Reality, pale and bony
wrists jutting from frayed cuffs
grunts for more sweet tea.

I chat, try to bridge the gap between us
with a thread of words. You start at ghosts I cannot see,
utter names of friends long dead.
From time to time, distraught, you weep.
Suddenly, you suck your thumb, drift into sleep.

Alone I wait.
No chanter music now to pass the time -
only the central heating's drowsy hum.

Outside the daylight fades,
the street lights flicker on and cast an eery glow.
And still I wait.

Soon they will come to take you from this darkening room.
Go quietly then. Don't rail. Don't fight.

Soon I too must make my way into the darkness of the night.

Blue Dawn

We enter the room you slipped out of
only a moment earlier.

Seated round your bed, we wait
as the heat ebbs from your body

until your hands, your brow
grow pale and cold as marble

until your absence grows as solid
as once your presence was.

Later we return to the house
you will never again come home to.
A black crow perches on a leafless birch,
rends the darkness with his raucous call – yet even so
it is the silence that most startles us.

As darkness turns to grey, I make my way back home.
Crossing Flanders Moss great herons rise from high untidy nests.
Clumsily they flap into a timeless sky.

A sudden buzzard, death gripped in its claws
bursts upwards, unexpected, from a hedge.

Grief swoops and sinks its claws into my heart.

Beside the Forth a lone swan,
silver in the first rays of the sun
lifts gracefully towards a pale blue dawn.

Golden Daffodils

A year after you died,
you appeared, alive and well
at the foot of my bed.

While my body slept,
we strolled together
through the wood behind the house.

It was good to get the chance
to tell you all the things
you’d missed since we last met.

We stopped just where the birches thin
and fields unfold in waves.
We watched as dawn clouds raced across the sky.

I left you there.

Tomorrow, I’ll take flowers to your grave,
golden daffodils you helped me gather
last night in the wood.

Your favourite flowers, you said,
with their promise of the coming spring
their promise of re-birth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poems for a War

So, at last Serbia has tracked down one of the wanted war criminals. And brought all our minds back to the dreadful events in the Balkans during the nineties. I was lucky. I only witnessed what went on from the safety of my armchair. Yet what came home to me was how easily all this could have been happening right here in my country, in my home, in my street.

I wrote the following sequence at the time. One woman's tiny personal protest against nationalism and violence.

the country with no name

in the country with no name
they lined up all the buts and ifs
they lined up all the whys
they lined the question marks against the wall
and shot each one between the eyes

only the children were left
silently painting a thousand guernicas
with bloodied fingers

lines of makeshift beds in school gymnasiums
lines of staring eyes behind the chicken wire

lines where people hungry for peace
are struck by mortars while they wait for bread

stretch lines on the swollen bellies
of impregnated women

washing lines where the clothes of the newly dead
twitch in the breeze

lines of despair cut deep in the faces
of the dispossessed

demarcation lines front lines confrontation lines

enemy lines which ebb and flow
across a blood-soaked map
on a tide of human suffering

so many lines in one small war
and still, no-one will draw the line
and say, enough, no more


private greed relaxes between offensives
dressed as a tree
but for the jackboots
and the blade in his right hand

his left hand cups an apple. he slips
the blade beneath its tight red skin, a
ribbon of red and pink
twists from his fist
the white flesh weeps, desire seeps
from his lips, a final nick
the skin flicks to his feet

behind him, cherry trees hang thick with blossom
the sky is blue, the world is still beautiful
while by his feet, faithful as a dog
his ak40 sleeps, its muzzle black and warm

private greed squints at the fireball of the sun
then sinks his teeth deep
in the apple’s flesh

in the distance a child is wailing
a village is smouldering
mother courage is dragging her cart
her shoulders bent
her feet bloodied and sore

private greed spits out seven glistening pips
then grinds his jack-boot heel, hard
on the apple core

will your people raise monuments in honour
of you who fought your neighbours

will they raise monuments
tall and white against the sky
built from the bones
of your neighbours’ children

will your fathers drape your coffins
with your nation’s flag

will they drape your coffins
with a blue-veined flag
stitched from the skins
of other men’s daughters

will your mothers speak your name with sadness
will the skies weep with the shame of it

will your brothers light a yellow flame
in memory of you who fought and died
will the flame burn forever
will it be a flame of hatred

from Kicking Back by Magi Gibson